Reducing the Critical Skills Gap Likely to be Widened by COVID-19 Pandemic

By Michael Herrera

Schools have historically sorted and selected students based on their innate intellectual abilities, which continues to remain a part of the educational landscape in the United States. The bias towards vocational education and jobs linked to intelligence has historical roots. In 1923, Ellwood P. Cubberley first discussed the relationship between I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient) and careers in “The Principal and His School.” He wrote, “The higher the I.Q., the more opportunities there will be open to a boy or girl, and the more they can be encouraged to stay in school and increase their preparation for life’s work” (p. 508). Vocational, general, and academic pathways were created and remained as a way to track students. This intellectual caste system attempt to pigeonhole students to careers based on intellectual ability is hardly helpful to students.

Regrettably, there remains a bias towards skilled labor, which many counselors feel is relegated to those students who will not succeed in the traditional classroom. Bottoms (2006) cautions that “academic educators view Career and Technical Education (CTE) as a way to teach occupational skills to students who could not succeed in academic courses” (p. 16). This either/or approach had its roots in the early history of vocational education when students were provided with particular technical skills to gain employment. Instead, academic educators should view CTE as an effective way to help students learn both academic and technical skills.

Historical Pathways

College preparation programs continue to be prioritized, failing to provide for the educational needs of those not college-bound (Dagget, 2010). Parents encourage their children to enter the prestigious world of college, university, and white-collar professions because of their perceived notion of increased earning potential and better working conditions. However, there is a significant disparity between the numbers of students who say they want to go to college and those who attend. A report by Stern and Stearns (2006) indicates that of the 80 to 90 percent of students desiring a college education, only a third of them get one. The problem is magnified for students in lower socio-economic backgrounds and those enrolled in remedial classes as they have little chance of completing advanced degrees. Students placed in the vocational and general pathways were provided with coursework lacking challenge and rigor. As a result, a large number of students began to take fewer vocational classes while in high school (Deluca, Plank & Estacion, 2006). “College for all” premised to all students having access to rigorous academic coursework. Luckily, an alternative model began to emerge that could be a possible solution to the existing problem. 

An Alternative Model  

Edling and Loring (1996) suggested that rather than presenting career skills and academic training as being opposites and in conflict, education should broaden perspectives and increase options for students’ futures. Career and technical schools would present rigorous academic coursework under the context of career pathways and contextual learning. Brown (1998) further developed this idea that real knowledge results from integrating life experience with the educational experience in all perspectives: career, technical, and academic. Tremaine (1992) supported this approach with his belief that vocational and academic curriculum must integrate to meet students’ educational needs and make education more meaningful and relevant.

The thought of combining a college-preparatory curriculum with career-related training in a career and technical school was filled with both promise and peril (Deluca et al., 2006). Career and technical schools help students answer the question posed in a typical public school classroom, “When are we going to have to use this?” For example, students in an electrical construction class can become more motivated and engaged in a lesson on Ohm’s Law if they can apply their newfound knowledge on a circuit.  It was not until recently that this concept turned into an expectation.

Today’s Challenges Present Opportunities for Career Specialists

Modern career and technical education have gone through a major overhaul over the last twenty years. Career major programs are aligned with the local and regional labor market while providing career-based training with an emphasis on certifications and credentials. The following statistic supports the importance of promoting career and technical education over the college for all approaches and the burdensome student loans that come with this leaning. According to Carneval, Strohl, Ridley and Gulish (2018; as cited in Coalition for Career Development, 2019):

44% of all “good jobs” in America – those that pay at least $35,000 for workers aged 25-44 – are held by people who have not earned a bachelor’s degree. This includes people who have earned a certificate, completed some postsecondary education, or even just received a high school degree. In all, there are almost 30 million good technical jobs for these people: jobs that provide access to the middle class. (p. 9)

The current unemployment figure suggests the need to move away from the single focus on college preparation that characterizes the pre-COVID-19 world to one that embraces and promotes all pathways, including the vocational and technical path. More than 10 million Americans lost their jobs and applied for government aid in March 2020 alone (U.S. Department of Labor, 2020). The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports significant rises in unemployment and underemployment because of quarantine measures and a decline in economic activity during COVID-19 (ILO, 2020). This equates to between 860 and 3,440 billion dollars losses to the economy. Jobs in the services sector, retail, and travel will put millions of jobs at risk. Women, young, and elderly workers are especially vulnerable during this time (ILO, 2020). The job loss implies that critical skills gaps in areas such as construction, advanced manufacturing, transportation, and healthcare will further be affected by the crisis.

Role of Career Counselors

Photo By Paule Knete On UnsplashThe current crisis calls for a change in direction to meet the demand of the new world of work that is likely to emerge in the post-coronavirus pandemic. Amid these losses, the pandemic crisis presents a unique opportunity to re-tool the way career counselors and other school professionals approach career exploration activities. To meet the demand for technical and trade jobs that are now occurring, career counselors can play a significant role. They can encourage students to take pride in their decision to enter the skilled trades while they continue to grow in management or entrepreneurial pursuits.

With the likely impact of the global pandemic crisis, the CTE, like vocational education in the last century, may now once again have the opportunity to be at the forefront of education reform that is imperative in the post-coronavirus work world. Given the high unemployment and job loss, proponents of CTE and career counselors will once again be inspired to become strong advocates for providing students and clients with guidance based on the current job market need. Student interests and aptitude rather than the “college for all” promotion that perpetuated the pre-coronavirus world will once again drive career and vocational education practice.  


Bottoms, G.  (2006). The role of career/technical education in the 21st century.  Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board.

Brown, B. L. (1998). Academic and vocational integration myths and realities. ED424400. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on adult, career and vocational education.

Coalition for Career Development. (Spring, 2019). Career readiness for all. [White Paper]. Retrieved from www.coalitionforcareerdevelopment.org/career-readiness-for-all 

Cubberley, E. P.  (1923). The principal and his school: The organization, administration, and supervision of instruction in an elementary school. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Dagget, W. R. (2010).   Jobs and the skills gap. International Center for Leadership in Education.  Retrieved from https://www.wnycollegeconnection.com/documents/Skills%20Gap/Job-Skills%20Gap%20White%20PaperPDF.pdf

Deluca, S., Plank, S. & Estacion, A.  (2006). Does career and technical education affect college enrollment?  Minneapolis, MN: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Minnesota.

Edling, W. H., & Loring, R. M.  (1996). Education and work: Designing integrated curricula. Strategies for integrating academic, occupational and employability standards. Waco, TX: Center for Occupational Research and Development. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/ERIC_ED396095/ERIC_ED396095_djvu.txt

ILO Monitor COVID-19 and the world of work Ist Edition. (March 2020). Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/coronavirus/lang--en/index.htm

Stern, D. & Stearns, R.  (2006). Combining academic and career technical courses to make college an option for more students: Evidence and challenges.  Retrieved from https://casn.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/resource_files/multiple-perspectives.pdf

Tremaine, P. D. (1992). Landscape horticulture at Anoka high school: More than mere skill development. Agricultural Education Magazine, 64(7), 9-12.

U.S. Department of Labor (2020, April). Unemployment insurance weekly claims. Retrieved April 2, 2020 from https://www.dol.gov/ui/data.pdf



Michael HerreraDr. Michael Herrera is the assistant director at Upper Bucks County Technical School. His extensive CTE background includes 15 years as an administrator in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His dissertation, “Creating a Link: The Development and Integration of a Literacy Program into Career and Technical Education,” focused on academic integration in a CTE setting. He can be reached at michaelherrera4200@gmail.com or through his LinkedIn profile at linkedin.com/in/michael-herrera-ed-d-70b554a. 

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1 Comment

Phyllis Chavis, GCDF   on Friday 05/01/2020 at 05:32 PM

Dr. Herrera is so right on point recommending that counselors, educators, and all guiding careers to become advocates providing individuals with guidance for the current job market.

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